Sunday, February 24, 2013

2 Lent

February 24, 2013

Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27.10-18; Luke 13.22-35

+ Last Sunday, of course, I revealed to all of you a fairly substantial change I made in my life. Last week I revealed that I had returned once again to being a vegetarian. Personally, I thought such a revelation was kind of a small thing. I mean, honestly, who would care? Right?

Uh-uh. Not so.

I had a full range of responses regarding it, from some wonderful words of encouragement to some very concerned words. And some people were just afraid that inviting me over for supper might be a difficult thing (not so, I think they found out).

For my part, this whole vegetarian decision has been wonderful. I have been greatly enjoying it. I have been realizing I haven’t really been enjoying the food I’ve been eating for some time. And the food I have been eating since making my decision has been wonderful. So, I’ve been greatly enjoying it.

However, one of my favorite responses this week was from a priest friend of mine who guessed, incorrectly, that I would not be preaching on our Genesis reading for this morning. I was confused when she brought it up to me. Why wouldn’t I be preaching on the Genesis reading?

“Well,” my friend said, “now that you’re a vegetarian, I couldn’t imagine you’d be comfortable preaching about those poor animals being cut up by Abram and laid about.”

Au contraire! I actually love the reading from Genesis this morning. I think, despite its violence, it’s an incredible story.   So, let’s take a look at the reading from Genesis.

In it, we find God making a covenant with Abram (soon to be called Abraham).  God commands Abram to sacrifice these different animals, to cut them in half and to separate them.  I’ll admit: yes, very strange. But, for me anyway,  the really strange part of the reading is that smoking fire pot and the flaming torch passing between the pieces. That really captured my imagination.

If we don’t know the back story—if we don’t understand the meaning of the cut animals—then the story makes little sense.  It’s just another gruesome, violent story from the Hebrew Scriptures.

But if we examine what covenant is all about, then the story starts taking on a new meaning. I love the stories about God and humans making covenants with each other.  I once made a point of studying all the stories in the scripture in which a covenant between God ad human was established. There is something so meaningful and so relational in doing such things.

Covenant of course is not a word we hear used often anymore. In fact, none of us use it except when talking about religious things. But a covenant is very important in the scriptures. A covenant is a binding agreement. And when one enters into a covenant with God, essentially that bound agreement is truly bound. There’s no unbinding it.

In the days of Abram, when one made a covenant with someone, it was common practice for that person entering the agreement to cut up an animal and then to stand in the middle of the cut-up pieces. Essentially what they were saying by doing so was: “let this happen to me if I break our covenant.”

What we find happening in our reading this morning is that it is not Abram standing in the midst of those cut-up animals. Rather it is God.  God is saying to Abram that if I ever break this covenant with you let happen to me what has happened to these animals. God is saying to Abram: “My Word is good. If this relationship between you and I breaks down it is not I who breaks the covenant.”

So, you can understand why I like this reading and how I think we can’t easily go around this image of cut-up animals.

Then, we come to our Gospel reading.  The part of this story that caught me was how the Pharisees came to tell Jesus that he was in danger from Herod.  Or rather, I should say, I was taken with Jesus’ reaction to this news. He is not concerned at all over Herod or even the danger that he himself is in. His concern rather  is for Jerusalem—for the city which, no doubt, was in sight. His concern is for the city he is about to enter and in which he knows he will meet his death. As he does so, Jesus does something at this moment that really is amazing. He laments.  He uses words similar to those found in the lamenting psalms. He uses poetry.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

It is beautiful. And it is powerful.  It’s incredible poetry.  

Knowing what he knew—knowing that in Jerusalem he will be betrayed and murdered—Jesus laments. He knows that what essentially is going to happen in Jerusalem is what happened while Abram slept. He, instead of the animals, will essentially cut up. He will be sacrificed. He will bleed.

And there, on the cross, in Jerusalem, God will once again stand in the midst of a shattered body—the Body of Jesus—and say to God’s people: “See my Word is good. I am remaining faithful to the covenant we have made.”

We, here on Sunday morning, see it again. It is reenacted for us here at the altar. Here we break this bread—this Body of Jesus—this sacrificial lamb. And here, in the midst of that broken body, God again says to us again and again, “See, my Word is good. I am faithful to covenant you and I have made.”

And in the midst of this realization, we too recite poetry.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the word have mercy on us.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

But the image doesn’t end there either. If we only look at this broken body as separate, as other, than it has no real meaning for us. But if we look at that broken body as our own broken bodies and the broken bodies of those around us, especially recognizing our brokenness in this season of Lent, we see the light in the midst of that brokenness. We see that light dancing in that brokenness. We see that light of God shining through even us—broken and shattered as we are. Unless we see that light in our brokenness, this season of Lent is not truly meaningful.  We will be stuck only in the brokenness and we don’t see the renewed covenant God has made with us.

In the shattered, cut-open pieces of our lives, God, as a bright light passes back and forth.  In that “deep and terrifying darkness” God appears to us as a light. All we have to do is recognize God in that midst of that darkness.

That is the meaning of Lent for us. That is the wonderful recognition we see, revealed in our very midst, here at this altar and here in our very lives.

It simply amazes me at times. It amazes how God works in these incredible ways. It amazes me that God, in the midst of my own brokenness, my own fractured being, allows the light to shine through. And not just a glimmer here and there. But a light that dances, that weaves and circles back and forth.

So, let us, in this Lenten season, see that light dancing in our own brokenness. Let us see God working in us and through us. Let us hear God saying to us, in brokenness, “My Word is good.” In doing so, in seeing that light and hearing those words, all we can sometimes do is open our mouths and let them the poems within us sing out to our God.

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Wednesday after 1 Lent

February 20, 2013

St. Mark's Lutheran Church
Fargo


Luke 21.34-22.6

+ As some of you know, I am huge film buff. I watch some very bizarre films occasionally. But a film that I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with, is the film The Last Temptation of Christ. Some of you might have remembered when it came out in 1988—25 years ago.  It was a very controversial film. There were protests by people who never actually saw the film. There were debates about its merits.  Everybody was talking about it at the time.
It was directed by Martin Scorsese, one of the great living film directors. And it was based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, the great Greek novelist who also wrote Zorba the Greek.

The book and film are controversial for the fact that, while on the cross, Jesus is tempted by a very angelic, sweet looking Satan. It is a story of “what could’ve been.” What could’ve happened if Jesus came down off the cross, which he could’ve done at any time in those three hours he was nailed there. What would’ve happened? How would his life have been difference? How would our lives be different?

Of course, the film explores coming down off the cross, getting married, having children, dying an old man, while Christianity still goes on. But probably the most interesting relationship, for me anyway, is that between Judas and Jesus.

In this story, Judas is conniving, yes. Judas betrays Jesus, yes. But Judas, played by none other than Harvey Keitel in the film, is not the person we have made him into in our popular understanding of Judas. In The Last Temptation, he becomes almost a hero. He only betrays Jesus because Jesus commands him to betray him. In fact, when Jesus actually does that commanding, Judas demands from Jesus whether he would do it if he were Judas’ place.

Jesus replies, "No, I couldn’t. That’s why God gave me the easier job [dying on the cross]."
We find ourselves sympathizing with Judas in a way none of us probably have before.

The point of all of this is actually quite simple: Judas is essential to the story of the cross. Without Judas, there would have been no opportunity for Jesus to die as he did.
Now, whether we agree with Kazantzakis’ interpretation of these events, Judas is important to the life (and death of Jesus), and for us as well. I think the reason we all find Judas to be so compelling when we hear about Jesus’ betrayal and death is that I think we see a bit of ourselves in Judas. As quickly as we say, no, I would never have done that,  Judas himself, in our place, would’ve said the same thing.

The fact is, we, like Judas, betray Jesus all the time. We betray him whenever we act in an unChristlike manner. When we no longer embody Christ, when we act arrogant, and self-centered, when we nag and try to control things, when we coerce and try to get our own ways, we are acting like Judas , and we are betraying Jesus. We are hindering  Christ’s Kingdom in our midst.  And we’re all guilty of this.

I certainly have been guilty of this in my life. And because I have, I have found myself not only relating to Judas, but, dare I say, sympathizing with him?

But whenever this might happen, whenever we do find ourselves acting like Judas, whenever we do find ourselves acting in such a unChristlike manner, we do have the ability to do something Judas obviously did not.

Judas responded to his betrayal with despair. He went off and hung himself. We don’t have to do that. For us, as Christians, that isn’t an option. Despair is not an option for us who follow Jesus, even if we have betrayed him some awful way. We know, full well, that, even despite our betrayals, Jesus still loves and will forgive us.

Judas, overcome by the Devil, as we hear in tonight’s Gospel reading, simply refuses to believe that. For him, he has betrayed Jesus and Jesus now is dead, or about to died, depending on when in the chronology of events Judas actually hangs himself.  There is, for Judas in that moment at the tree, no opportunity for reconciliation. The love of Jesus seems, to Judas, as dead as Jesus seems dead.

But even then, the story does not necessarily have to end on this dark note. No story regarding Jesus ends on a dark note.

As some of you know, certainly those who attend the Holy Saturday service at St. Stephen’s during Holy Week, know that one of my favorite topics to preach on and ponder in my own spiritual life is the so-called Harrowing of Hell, or we probably know it better, the belief that Jesus descended to hell. This descent to hell is referenced in 1 Peter 3:19–20 and we, of course, profess it in the Apostle’s Creed. Many early theologians of the church certainly believed in it and even Martin Luther, in 1533 at Torgau, preached a sermon about Jesus’ descent to hell.

Gary Wills, a contemporary Roman Catholic New Testament theologian, once wrote about his belief that as Christ descend into hell, the first person he met—and no doubt forgave—was none other than Judas himself.

I love that scenerio. I love it because, as someone who has been in the place of Judas, I want to know that, even though I have betrayed Jesus, even though I have turned away from him, even though I have given him the kiss that betrays him to those who will harm him, no matter where I go, no matter to what depths of hell that betrayal will send me, even there, he will come to me and find me and forgive me and welcome me.

I think without that final note of forgiveness, the story of Judas is not finished. His hanging from a tree, his burial in the potter’s field his silver helped to buy, is not the end of the Judas story. The end of the Judas story is that moment when he is embraced by Jesus and forgiven. And in that moment, the Judas story truly becomes our story as well.

There is no simple black and white in any of our lives. None of us are purely and fully bad, nor are any of us purely and fully good.

It is easy for us to demonize Judas. It is easy to imagine the end of his story hanging from that tree.  But that is not seeing with the eyes of Jesus. Seeing with the eyes of Jesus means, seeing that final moment, that final reunion in that dark place to which Jesus descends. Seeing with the eyes of Jesus means going even there and seeing redemption.
That, I think, is a great message for this Lenten season. No matter where we are, no matter to what ends of despair we might find ourselves, even there, Jesus will find us and embrace and lead us back.  
 
I’m going to close tonight with a poem. I don’t normally like to inflict poetry on people. Luckily it’s not one of my own poems, so…it won’t be so bad. This poem comes from one of my all-time favorite contemporary American poets—a poet who actually lived here in Fargo very briefly for two or three summers in the 1960s, while he taught at Moorhead State.

His name is James Wright. He died in 1980. Truly one of our best American poets. And he wrote a poem about Judas that, I think, sums up our thoughts on Judas very nicely:

Saint Judas

by James Wright

When I went out to kill myself, I caught
A pack of hoodlums beating up a man.
Running to spare his suffering, I forgot
My name, my number, how my day began,
How soldiers milled around the garden stone
And sang amusing songs; how all that day
Their javelins measured crowds; how I alone
Bargained the proper coins, and slipped away.

Banished from heaven, I found this victim beaten,
Stripped, kneed, and left to cry. Dropping my rope
Aside, I ran, ignored the uniforms:
Then I remembered bread my flesh had eaten,
The kiss that ate my flesh. Flayed without hope,
I held the man for nothing in my arms.

 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

1 Lent

February 17, 2013

Luke 4.1-13

+ So, I really do need to know: did you all really miss me while I was gone on vacation? Well, you know I missed you all, of course. In fact, last Sunday I was going through some major St. Stephen’s withdrawal.  I don’t know if that makes a good priest or a sick priest.

But, for me anyway, it’s very good to be back. Vacation was a good thing this year, but it was also a bit eye-opening, shall we say. I can’t help but be reflective a bit on vacation. And this one was particularly reflective. Because my hosts had to work a few of the days I was there, I had some time to myself. I was able to borrow their convertible sports car and tooled around the coast by myself a bit.  Doing so, I found myself looking back over this past year since vacation last year and there were some major changes in my life. There have also been some major set-backs this past year, not the least of which was of course some pretty big health issues. I of course suffered a car accident, as well as a  concussion from a fall, and my ulcer. I realized that I am still dealing physically with all of them.  Well, I’m not in my thirties anymore, so of course that makes me think.

As I was thinking and as I was pondering the upcoming season of Lent, I made a pretty major decision in my life. No, it’s not anything major that will affect St. Stephen’s or anything like that. Rather, it’s more of an admission. Or, shall I say, a confession. It’s Lent, after all. My confession is just this:

I have become—a vegetarian.

I actually should say, I have become a vegetarian once again. I have been a vegetarian on-and-off many times over the past twenty years. In my mid-twenties, I was a very strict vegetarian for five years. Five very good years. But with my health issues this past year and realizing that I needed to make a fairly substantial change in my life—well, there it is—vegetarianism. I think it’s especially good to make such a change at Lent.

Our Gospel reading for today is especially a good one for making a change like this.  In our Gospel reading for today, we find Jesus telling the Devil, in no uncertain terms,

“One does not live by bread alone”

He also says some other very important things. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” and “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

At first glance, we might find these confessions a big vague—at least in relation to our regular day-to-day life.  But, there is, of course, so much wisdom in what Jesus is telling the Devil.  

Do not live by bread alone.

One of the things I think most of us find so hard to grasp—especially those of us from a more Protestant background—is this conception of fasting and abstaining from certain foods.  This season of Lent is the prime time for us to look long and hard at our eating practices. I am not necessarily encouraging everyone to be a vegetarian. But I am, of course, encouraging all of us too look at our eating habits and think about them. For most of us, myself certainly included, we simply eat without giving a second thought to what we’re eating and why.

Certainly we have doctors who tell us this is one of the leading causes of a good many of our health problems in this country.  When we realize how high the rate of obesity and related illnesses are, we know that food is a major factor in our lives and in regard to our health and longevity.

In the face of that, this quote from Jesus resonates.  In the desert, the devil tempts him.  Jesus has been fasting and is no doubt extremely hungry. Someone has to be pretty hungry to tempted by stones. The devil seems to say to him, You have the power.  Turn these stones into bread and you can eat. And Jesus certainly could have done just that.

But Jesus knew that this was the time for him to abstain from food.  This was the time to remind himself that what gave him sustenance was not the bread that goes into his physical body, but rather what sustained him spiritually.

And that is important for us. It is important to look at what eat physically. It is important to remind ourselves what sustains us spiritually.

When we look at issues like obesity and eating disorders, we realize that there is often a psychological reason for our abuse of food.  We do eat for comfort.  We do eat physically thinking that it will sustain us emotionally.  And when we do, the fact is, eating loses its purpose.  Eating for sustenance. Eating for health. Those are thrown to the wayside. Eating becomes a way for us to sooth ourselves, to focus attention back on ourselves.

A time of fasting is a time for us to break that habit and to nudge ourselves into realizing that what should be sustaining us spiritually is the spiritual food we receive from Jesus.  It is important to ask ourselves, what really gives us comfort? Whatever it is, that is what we should be clinging to when we need to comfort.  Yes, we need physical food. But we also need more than physical food. We over-depend to some extent on our physical food. We eat more food than what we need more often than not.  And we eat sometimes without being mindful of those who are not able to eat.

While we eat more than we need to sustain us, there are those who do not have enough food to sustain themselves.  And it is important for us, as followers of Jesus, as followers who follow Jesus out into that desert, to be mindful of those who are not able to turn rocks into bread, who do not have an abundance of food from a supermarket with shelves and shelves of food, or from refrigerator that overflows with food.  There are people who do not have the luxury of eating to soothe themselves, to comfort themselves with food.

For us, if we have to use physical food to help us emotionally, something is amiss. Something is wrong. The challenge become finding that balance. And that balance is found in our spiritual food. It is found in our spiritual sustenance.

We fast during Lent to show that we are not using food for personal, self-centered gain. We fast to show that we really depend on spiritual nourishment, and that without spiritual nourishment, we are not whole.  We fast during Lent also to remind ourselves of those for whom fasting would be a luxury.

I once had a relative that used to fast every time she really wanted something important from God.  Fasting has nothing to do what we do.  We cannot manipulate God and make God do what we want—by fasting or by anything else we can do or say.  None of us are in the position to do that.  And if we could, even if God could be manipulated, I’m not certain we would truly want to serve a God that can be manipulated.

Fasting is about turning away from ourselves for a while, and focusing on God and others.  That is the gist of what we hear in today’s Gospel reading. Self-denial, fasting, giving up something for the sake of our spiritual growth ultimately to help us draw closer to God and one another.

Now, I have to be clear, self-denial is not self-hatred. It is not a time to beat ourselves up for some failure we have done. It is not a time to feel bad ourselves or to be ashamed.  God, who loves us so fully and completely, doesn’t want us to do that.

Self-denial is about turning from self-idolatry. It is about tuning away from thinking we are the centers of our universe. It is about turning away from that belief that it is all about the all-mighty ME. And we all do that. We all build ourselves up and make ourselves into something we aren’t at times

Lent is a time for us to realize that we must turn from an inordinate love of self and refocus our love on God and on others.  This is what Lent is really about.

“You shall not live by bread alone,” Jesus tells the Devil—and us.

Rather, let us feed on that Bread from heaven. That bread we share here at this altar. And that bread we carry with us into the world. Carrying that Bread into the world, let us share it with others in love.  Let us share it, and in sharing it, let us fulfilled and made whole.

 

 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Sylvia Plath, on the 50th anniversary of her death

Today is the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s death. Some people over the years have asked why I have fostered such a weird obsession with her. The reason is very simple: she was the first poet that ever “clicked” with me.  And the poem that caused that “click” was “The Moon and the Yew Tree.”I first read it in high school and I can remember like it was yesterday the first time I read it.  It was a poem that I truly “got.” Later, I wrote my Master’s thesis on how that poem was not only Plath’s transitional poem, but a poem that “allowed” me to write in many ways. This poem, for many years, became the goal of all my own poems. For me, it was, in many ways, the poetic ideal.

While Plath’s poetic career has been overshadowed by a weird mythology, not to mention the scandal and gossip of her private life, the fact remains: she was an incredible poet who wrote poems I still find myself gasping over at moments. Her skill, her vision, her genius are evident in those poems.

I will admit that, for most part, I have outgrown Plath. As contemporary poets go, Elizabeth Bishop’s influence has far outshone Plath’s for me personally. Still, I can’t help but feel a certain need for homage for Plath on this day.  And as I re-read “The Moon and the Yew Tree” today, I am still just as amazed by it as the first time I read it some twenty-seven years ago.

The Moon and the Yew Tree

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God
Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility
Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place.
Separated from my house by a row of headstones.
I simply cannot see where there is to get to.

The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,
White as a knuckle and terribly upset.
It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet
With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.
Twice on Sunday, the bells startle the sky --
Eight great tongues affirming the Resurrection
At the end, they soberly bong out their names.

The yew tree points up, it has a Gothic shape.
The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.
How I would like to believe in tenderness -
The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.

I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering
Blue and mystical over the face of the stars
Inside the church, the saints will all be blue,
Floating on their delicate feet over the cold pews,
Their hands and faces stiff with holiness.
The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.
And the message of the yew tree is blackness - blackness and silence.